Double-edged development

Study warns of large-scale displacement in Thar as well as threats to human lives and environment

A study titled Air Quality, Health and Toxic Impacts of the Proposed Coalmining and Power Cluster in Thar, Pakistan, has warned of massive pollution and serious health risks for the local population.

The study has been conducted by Sweden-based researcher Lauri Myllyvirta for Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), a European research centre, in collaboration with the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) and the Rural Development Policy Institute (RDPI).

“Since Pakistan is already suffering from high levels of air pollution, the emissions induced by coalmines and power plants of Thar will further reduce life expectancy and increase the vulnerability of its citizens to the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Myllyvirta. She was speaking at an online launch for the study organised recently by Alliance for Climate Justice and Clean Energy (ACJCE).

The study estimates that over an operating period of 30 years, emissions from the coalmines and power plants in Thar will lead to 29,000 air pollution-related deaths, 40,000 asthma emergency room visits, 19,906 new cases of asthma in children, 32,000 pre-term births, 20 million days of (sick leave) and 57,000 years lived with disability resulting from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes and stroke.

Thar has 176 billion tonnes of the 186 billion tonnes of the total coal reserves in Pakistan. In latent energy terms this is more than the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia and Iran combined. The reserves can be used to generate 100,000 megawatt electricity for over 200 years. The lignite coal deposits, spread over a single contiguous area of 90,000 square kilometers were discovered in early 1990s. The coal is ranked as lignite-B. It has a high sulphur and ash contents.

Thar Coal and Energy Board (TCEB) was established in 2008. It is a collaboration between the federal government and the government of Sindh to facilitate investment and development of coal-based power.

Mining and power generation has started in Block II, which is estimated to produce 5,000 MW for 50 years. Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company (SECMC) was created as a joint venture between the Sindh government and Engro Powergen Limited (EPL). The EPL is a subsidiary of Engro Corporation Limited, China Power International Holding (CPIH), and Sino-Sindh Resources (Private) Limited (SSR).

The area covered by the mining lease to SECMC is spread over 95.5 square kilometers. The company plans to develop the mine in three phases — producing 3.8 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) coal to feed the 660 MW power plant in the first phase, 7.6 MTPA to also feed two 330 MW power plants in the second phase, and 33 MTPA with a potential to produce 3,960 MW electricity in the final phase.

Located five kilometres from the Block-II mining site, a 660 MW power plant has been operational since March 2019.

Three more coal-based power plants are planned in Block-II, each having a generation capacity of 330 MW. One of these is currently under construction. The financial close of the remaining two is in progress. The under construction plant is being built by Thar Energy Limited (TEL). It is scheduled to start commercial operations in March 2021. TEL is owned by Hub Power Company (Hubco), China Machinery Engineering Corporation (CMEC) and Fauji Fertilizer Company (FFC).

The two plants for which financial close is under progress, will be built by Thal Nova Power (Pvt) Limited and Siddique Sons Energy Limited.

The Myllyvitra study predicts a horrible environmental footprint for the project alleging that key players in planning and execution of the project are deliberately playing down the risks including habitat degradation for diverse forms of life.

There has been local resistance to the mining and power projects including protests against the land acquisition policy of the government, which the protesters says is coercive and exploitative.

Undeterred by these protests, the SECMC has managed to acquire 1,500 acres of land to build a wastewater reservoir near Gorrano village.

532 acres out of this was private land.

The Myllyvitra study predicts a horrible environmental footprint for the project alleging that key players in planning and execution of the project are deliberately playing down the risks.

“We tried to apprise SECMC of the social and environmental harm from the Gorrano reservoir,” said Lachman Das, a resident of Gorrano village, who also moved Sindh High Court against it.

“We also tried to convince the government and the SECMC to build the reservoir at an alternative site to reduce its adverse impacts. The SECMC paid no heed, leaving us with no option but to protest and engage in a legal battle,” he added.

Lachman Das also participated in a 25-month long protest demonstration held by the affected families in front of Islamkot Press Club.

The Myllyvitra study over all around 4,880 acres of land, including 3,800 acres of private land has been acquired in Senhri Dars village. The farmers of Senhri Dars did not wish to surrender the land although they were willing to lease it. In the end 172 families from three communities - Dars, Kohli and Bheel – were displaced. Dars was the landholding community, depending upon rearing livestock and subsistence agriculture. The Kohlis and Bheels were largely landless and had worked as farm labour.

The families have been resettled in New Senhri Dars Model Village, which the government of Sindh has built to relocate them.

More people living in nearby villages would be displaced in near future, Leela Ram, an advocate and affected person, says.

He says the government has purchased the land at Rs 180,000 to Rs 225,000 per acre but not paid the farmer for the crops.

Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company (SECMC) rejects the claim that Thar coal will cause unprecedented air pollution.

“It is important to understand that a detailed environmental impact assessment (EIA) has been done separately for the mine and the power project and the assessment of the ESIAs as well as operating data coming from the mine and power station in Thar remain compliant to Sindh Environmental Quality Standards (SEQS) and to IFC emission guidelines,” a spokesperson for the company says.

The spokesperson says the villagers displaced from Block-II. “have been relocated to an alternate location in Block-II and have also been made owners of the project by providing them with shareholding… A lifetime annual compensation of Rs 100,000 has already been paid to all 172 [displaced] household owners. All residents of the village have been shifted to their new homes with a much better standard of living.”

Sindh Minister for Energy Imtiaz Ahmed Shaikh says the government is producing energy by using the mined coal. “Many countries in the world use coal for producing energy,” he said. “We are using the latest machinery for mining,” says Imtiaz Shaikh, adding that Thar Coal project would not cause significant pollution.” He says no livestock or agriculture has been affected by the project so far.

He says the Gorrano Dam issue has been settled.“The dam has become a picnic point for the people of Thar. We are also working on alternative energy resources like solar and wind projects.”

Muhammad Ali Shah, the Pakistan Fisher-folk Form (PFF) chairman, says the government should prefer renewable energy projects to coal-based energy.

The writer is a journalist based in Karachi. He can be reached on Twitter @Zafar_Khan5

Double-edged development